The White House had to act with extreme urgency to gain the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and had no time to give notification to Congress, a top Senate Democrat said Tuesday.
"They knew a day ahead of time the transfer was going to take place" Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Congressional reporters in defense of President Obama.
“They knew an hour ahead of time where it was going to take place" in Afghanistan’s southeastern Khost province, Durbin said after a closed briefing by military officials on the Bergdahl release before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Durbin’s defense of the Obama administration’s haste in gaining Bergdahl’s return in exchange for five Taliban prisoners was disputed by several other senators who attended the closed session with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Dempsey and Winnefeld “very much supported this deal despite the fact that they knew Bergdahl had left his unit and despite the fact that they knew these five Taliban were bad guys,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Committee. “That has a big impact on me,” Levin said.
However, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., charged that President Obama demonstrated a “a lack of understanding of the reality of the conflict we’re engaged in” by making the deal.
“It’s got to be demoralizing for our allies. It’s got to be demoralizing for our soldiers,” Sessions said after the hearing.
“In my mind it’s still a bad deal,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “I still can’t explain it back home to my fellow West Virginians why these five who they’ve tried repeatedly to get some exchange for over the last 10 years, why these five all of the sudden all were released.”
In the firestorm of criticism over Bergdahl’s release, House and Senate Republicans have charged that President Obama broke the law by failing to give Congress 30-days notice on the release of five Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Naval Base detention facility in exchange for Bergdahl.
Several Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have also complained of being left out of the loop.
Critics of the deal have also charged that up to 80 Obama administration officials knew of the impending prisoner swap but not one member of Congress.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that informing Congress while negotiations were at a crucial point would have risked the possibility of a leak and put Bergdahl’s life in jeopardy. "Making a lot of phone calls around town doesn't seem like a very prudent measure," Earnest said.
The assertions about the urgency of action in Bergdahl’s case came on the eve of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s testimony Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee on the way the Obama administration went about the prisoner swap.
“He understands there are questions about the process here,” Rear Adm. John Kerby, a the Pentagon press secretary, said of Hagel.
“The Secretary understands there are concerns about the notification process” to Congress, Kirby said, but there was a “small fleeting window of opportunity” to make the deal.
Kirby insisted there was no ransom involved. “No money was exchanged” in the swap in which the five Taliban prisoners were sent to the Gulf state of Qatar with guarantees from Qatari officials that they would not be allowed to leave for at least a year.
Bergdahl was believed to have been held in Pakistan for nearly five years after he allegedly walked away from his unit in Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika province but the U.S. never had a solid fix on his location to mount a rescue operation, Kirby said.
“We also believe that he was moved around” while in captivity, Kirby said. “We never had complete, perfect visibility on where he was.”
Kirby cautioned against a rush to judgment that Bergdahl was a deserter who did not deserve the efforts made by the U.S. to gain his return.
“Right now, we’re grateful we got him,” Kirby said, and the reasons for his going missing will be the subject of later investigation by the Army.
“He’s not been declared a deserter,” Kirby said. “There really is only one person who knows what happened that night” when he went missing from his outpost, and that person was Bergdahl, Kirby said.